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    Bricks without straw – Sh’mot

    Slavery in Egypt, from the Barcelona Haggadah, 14th century

    Fast-moving events fill the sidra, including the imposition of the decree of slavery on the Children of Israel.

    By turning the Israelites into slave labourers building the Egyptian store-cities, the Pharaohs created and gained a manpower force condemned to centuries of toil and trouble.

    It did no good for Moses and Aaron to protest. All they achieved was the tightening up of the repressive policies of the regime.

    In particular, now the Israelites had to make bricks without straw – or rather, they had to forage and find their own straw without the daily tally of bricks being reduced in any way.

    This is the origin of the common phrase, “bricks without straw”. It is also one of the earliest sources we have regarding industrial relations.

    Do workers have rights? The question has resounded through history.

    Modern life has supposedly solved the problem by ensuring that employers have to treat their employees fairly.

    Here too, however, there are Biblical precedents about not withholding a worker’s wages or intruding upon his privacy or dignity, and there are whole sections of the Talmud that go into great detail on the subject.

    One might have thought that these issues had long since been settled, but even in the most advanced and democratic societies there are still occasions when governments introduce legislation that appears to curtail workers’ rights.

    No society can afford to sit back and relax its alertness to infringements of human dignity in any form.

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